The Defense Department announced this week it will allow transgender people to serve openly and transition to their preferred gender during service, but admitted this policy change could impact the mission and unit readiness.
The revised policy creates a path for members of the military to receive medical treatment related to their gender transition during their transition. It also seeks to eliminate all discrimination against transitioning or transitioned service members.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin praised the change and said the U.S. Armed Forces will “remain the best and most capable team because we avail ourselves of the best possible talent that American has to offer, regardless of gender identity.”
The policy acknowledges, however, that this change could come at a cost. It calls on commanders to find ways to “minimize” the effect of this change on both the ability to carry out missions, and the ability to maintain cohesive units.
“Commanders will assess expected impacts on mission and readiness after consideration of the advice of military medical providers,” according to the policy, which calls on commanders to develop tools to “minimize impacts to the mission and unit readiness.”
One reason unit readiness could be affected is that the policy opens the door to flexible fitness standards for transitioning service members. Ideally, transitioning service members should be able to meet standards at all times, but the policy admits that “every transition is unique” and that flexibility is needed to accommodate “transitions that may or may not follow this construct.”
The policy specifically calls on commanders to minimize impacts on the mission and readiness “in the event a transitioning individual is unable to meet standards or requires an ETP [exception to policy] during a period of gender transition.”
The rule instructs commanders to do as much as they can to accommodate transitioning service members, and to “consider and balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the command” as they assess requests for ETPs.
One possible option for commanders is to grant these exceptions for service members who are transitioning but whose gender transition has not yet been recognized as complete in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. Others are advising service members about the availability of extended leave; transfer to another command, location or duty status; and being flexible on policies related to bathrooms, showers and grooming for those still in transition.
DOD said the policy change will take effect April 30, 2021, which will give commanders, service members and medical staff time to prepare for the change. The change effectively reverses a policy set by the Trump administration, which said its move to impose hurdles to transgender service was an effort to ensure the U.S. military maintains “the highest standards necessary to achieve maximum readiness, deployability, and lethality to fight and win on the battlefield.”
The Trump-era policy required all service members and applicants to serve according to their biological sex and meet the standards set for their biological sex, not their preferred sex. People who were undergoing transition treatment or surgery were presumptively disqualified from service.
The Trump policy also eliminated some accommodations that were given to transgender service members but not others, such as the ability to be on hormone therapy without creating a new barrier to enlisting.
The Defense Department policy released this week is aimed at building a more inclusive and diverse military, which is a top warfighting priority of the Biden administration.